May 30, 2002

MARK ELLIOTT, circulation manager for USA Today, takes great exception to what I said earlier about print media inflating their paid circulation numbers:

As an circulation employee for USA TODAY I wanted to set the record straight regarding “free” papers and their “bundling” with hotels to count as paid. You make it sound as if it were a gimmick. They are counted as paid because they are paid for. They are bought and paid for by the hotel (at a slightly reduced rate for the large chains) for their customers. You can argue that many of those people would not normally buy a paper if one was not presented to them each morning but I don’t accept that. USA TODAY presents a fresh product each morning unique among its competition that is regarded as a must-have by the business traveler. Since the majority of hotels who offer this amenity serve the business community, I don’t feel there would be a significant drop off of circulation numbers should this practice end tomorrow.

Well, I don’t know about that. I appreciate Mr. Elliott’s point, but I’ve also gotten those papers when I stayed in hotels a lot more than I’ve bought them on my own. When you present your product free at someone’s door, they may read it or they may chuck it in the trash. I don’t think that it shows the same degree of reader interest as a subscription or a newsstand purchase. By way of comparison, if I were to spam InstaPundit content out to thousands of people — or have the spam bundled in with some other product or service (“subscribe to this porn site and get InstaPundit absolutely free!“) I don’t think it would demonstrate the same degree of interest as visits to this page.

I’ve got no grudge against USA Today, which I think is a lot better paper than many people realize. But I think this just underscores an important point: people argue about web stats, but older media bring even less information to the table about what people are reading. If I read Walter Shapiro’s column on the USA Today site, they know I’ve read it. If I buy a copy of the print edition to hold over my head because I don’t have an umbrella, I count as a “reader” of the whole thing even if I never open it.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s any leverage in the InstaPundit / Net Porn bundling scheme, either.

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